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Circuit court vacates California church closure decision

shutterstock 1209468139 California flag. / Millenius/Shutterstock

California churches scored another victory in their cases against state coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday.

The South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista is now one step closer to winning its push for unrestricted indoor worship during the pandemic, after having challenged the state’s COVID-related ban on indoor worship in certain geographical areas.

Following instructions by the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday vacated a district court ruling against South Bay. The decision came in light of recent Supreme Court rulings favorable to churches that have challenged state COVID restrictions that disproportionately limit religious freedom.

On Nov. 25, the Supreme Court granted relief to the Brooklyn Diocese in its case against New York’s restrictions on indoor worship in virus “red zones.” On Dec. 3, the court heard the appeal of other California churches against the state’s targeted ban on indoor worship.

While a district court had ruled in favor of the state of California and against the churches in the case, and the Ninth Circuit had upheld that ruling, the Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit’s finding. It instructed that the case be sent back to the lower courts for reconsideration in light of Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.

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Paul Jonna, special counsel with the Thomas More Society which represented South Bay church, praised the Tuesday decision by the Ninth Circuit.

“The guidance from the Supreme Court makes it abundantly clear that California’s restrictions on houses of worship are blatantly unconstitutional,” he said.

Churches have started winning their cases against state COVID restrictions, as a fall surge in virus cases has prompted stricter orders from states and localities on public gatherings.

In New York, the state in October had limited indoor religious gatherings in certain areas to only 10 people, with other areas limited to 25 people, due to the spread of the virus in those areas, while allowing other venues to open and operate under far less restrictions.

That prompted a lawsuit by the Brooklyn Diocese, which argued that it had worked with public health officials to establish safety protocols at indoor Masses, had followed the protocols, and had not contributed to any outbreak of the virus. The diocese appealed its case to the Supreme Court, and was joined at the court by Orthodox Jewish congregations.

On Nov. 25, the Supreme Court found that the state could have used less restrictive means to slow the spread of the virus, and found that churches had not contributed to the spread of the virus. Furthermore, certain businesses were labeled “essential” by the state and were not subject to the restrictions that churches were, the court found.

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The majority opinion stated that “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” and that the state’s restrictions, “by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

“It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion.

Following that ruling, the Court on Dec. 3 accepted the appeal of California churches against the state’s COVID restrictions.

In that case, Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry had challenged the state’s order banning indoor worship in certain localities due to the spread of the virus in those areas. Certain home meetings for religious purposes, such as Bible studies, were curtailed in some areas as well. In areas where indoor religious gatherings were allowed, singing was prohibited as a high-risk activity.

The churches alleged that comparable non-religious gatherings and mass protests were allowed to continue by the state.

“In light” of the Harvest Rock and Brooklyn Diocese cases, the Ninth Circuit vacated the district court’s ruling against South Bay church on Tuesday.

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